Fresh Eyes: My ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ story

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Sayaka & Anthony photoby Sayaka Matsuoka

Growing up an Asian kid in the ’90s in the suburban South was hard. The only Asian on TV was a Power Ranger, all the kids at school were white and I was constantly treated as an outsider. Turns out I was not as alone as I felt. A new ABC show, “Fresh Off the Boat,” takes as an ongoing premise, these struggles felt by a majority of Asians growing up in the United States.

In many ways, my experiences mirror those of Eddie Huang, whose memoir served as inspiration for the sitcom. The show follows his family — made up of his mother, father, two younger brothers and grandmother — and their adventures after moving from culturally vibrant Washington DC to a picket-fence neighborhood in Florida. Similarly, I was born in the melting pot of New York City but by the time I was walking and talking, North Carolina was home.

It’s not that life was always terrible or people were always mean to me. It was more like I was constantly made fully aware of the fact that I was Asian and most everyone around me wasn’t. For starters, my name was different. A lot of Asian kids are given a different, more easily understood and pronounced “white name” along with their birth name to save them the embarrassment of those first dreadful minutes of every new class when the teacher inevitably struggles to pronounce your name to which you have to save her and say, “That’s me. It’s Sayaka.” This happened every school year until I graduated from UNCG last May. In Eddie’s case, the teacher hilariously attempts to read his Chinese name at which point, to her enormous relief, Eddie interjects by saying, “Just call me Eddie.”

It was the same with school lunches. There’s a scene in which Eddie sits with some white boys at lunch and he pulls out Chinese noodles that his mom packed him. I used to bring my mom’s rice balls. The kids reacted the same to both of us . “Ew! Gross! Get that out of here! That’s nasty.” Afterwards, Eddie slinks back to a table, where a black boy is sitting by himself and sarcastically says to him, “Oh no! What happened? The white kids didn’t welcome you with open arms?”

The show makes enough fun of white society and its blatant disregard for different cultures to be relatable and hilarious without being too offensive. The show has, without a doubt, been watered down from the original memoir for a vanilla audience, but it never misses the mark of reaching out to Asian Americans and our experiences.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned how to defend myself against the unavoidable attacks of both blatant and subtle racism.

I vehemently rejected the stereotype of the quiet, obedient Asian girl and presented myself as loud, sarcastic and blunt. I learned to tell race jokes and poke fun at myself just to take the pleasure away from potential jokesters. It was a defense mechanism. Sure, I was used to racism to the point that the jokes were expected and predictable, but it hurt nonetheless. It made accepting myself hard. It wasn’t until recently that I fully embraced what it meant to be Asian in this country, to finally be okay with that. Now I am able to be proud of who I am.

The show also takes great care to capture the nuances of the interactions within an Asian-American family. Although stereotypical, the show perfectly depicts Mrs. Huang as the strict, crazy Asian mom who makes her kids do extra school work or charges into the principal’s office when Eddie gets straight As, claiming that the school curriculum is too easy. It’s like watching my mom through a television screen. She wasn’t so strict that she yelled if I didn’t get straight As, but she hardly praised me growing up. My parents, especially my mom, always expected success.

Growing up in an Asian family makes you stronger. Dealing with racism out in the world and being called “fat and lazy” at home will do that to you. I remember one time when my grandparents were visiting from Japan and I hadn’t seen my grandma in almost four years. The first thing she said to me as I reached to carry her bag was, “Did you gain weight?”

My family life wasn’t abusive or unhealthy. It may sound like that to someone who doesn’t fully understand these cultural mores, but I lived a happy childhood. My mom would always tell me, “No matter what happens, I will always be on your side.” We weren’t always good at vocalizing our love for each other but our actions were enough. And it’s nice to finally be able to watch a show on television and say, “Hey, I get that.”

Sayaka Matsuoka is an intern at Triad City Beat.